In my previous post I noted that it might be rewarding to examine Mother Elspeth (Phyllida Law) and Daughter Frances’ (Emma Thompson) story in The Winter Guest. The task of tracing their narrative in this crazily edited puzzle was very laborious but worth the effort. On my first viewing I had dismissed the film because I was disappointed that it did not fulfil the promise of its  first four and a half minutes sequence. It is the most visually memorable sequence that expresses the struggles, determination and resilience of old women. After these amazing shots I was led to expect a story about an old woman.After a painstaking analysis, ignoring the joins that do not quite fit the puzzle, I found a realist script, wonderful acting and mainly a novel cinematic treatment of Mother/Daughter relationship. It was not easy to follow a non linear narrative of a lifelong relationship where the roles of protector and protected are reversed.

The first brief shot is of a young woman sleeping. The next one is a close up of Phyllida Law’s face as she is walking. It is a stressed determined old face. Frizzy hair is combed up and back in an old-fashioned way and her steely blue eyes look directly in front of her. A long take follows showing the figure in the distance walking directly towards the camera leaving behind a flat expanse of snow under a grey sky. In the next long take the figure in the distance crosses the screen from left to right over a rugged terrain. A medium tracking shot shows us the woman in a fur coat walking and the next one is again a long shot of her carried on in small steps down a slope diagonally across the screen. The dull vegetation gives place to a rocky path against a rocky wall on which she steadies herself. This is followed by a path with walls on both sides. She climbs it with evident effort. The next shot is of a snowy village street with a gritting lorry and a lone man and a dog. A tracking shot follows the old woman who carries a bag across the village main road towards a railing on which she steadies herself. Her gait shows tiredness and then she trips and nearly falls. A flock of crying seagulls fills the screen.   A lone seagull in the sky precedes the  close-up of the woman’s distressed face as she looks straight ahead.   A crane shot then retracts from the village and pans along the main street to a vast expanse of frozen sea. A zoom in on indistinct white frozen surface with a hint of pink in the horizon cuts to the  young woman who wakes up suddenly with a cry of fear.

This visual introduction to the two women shows us a determined old woman and a young woman in distress. The fact that Fr is in mourning is not explicit but during the later scenes through Thompson’s remarkable acting and other visual cues, we understand that she has recently lost her husband.

When Elspeth arrives at France’s house she has a few words with Alex her grandson: ” Leave her to me”. She enters a house that contrasts to the outside. Books, sculptures, photos on the walls and tables, rugs and cushions and a lived in kitchen give a warm feel but we are told that the boiler does not work and it is cold. Photos of a man are prominent on the walls, the stairs, the mantlepiece, the table. From then on we are presented with the complex relationship between Frances and Elspeth. Far from the usual melodramatic films about Mother and Daughter where tensions result in a violent emotional explosion, the realistic dialogue here reveals the meeting ground of different points of view and experiences and a change of roles.

At the beginning El addresses her adult daughter as ‘Cherub’ and reminisces loudly about the past when Fr was a child. Fr has taken refuge in the bathroom with her hands over her ears and an abstracted pained expression and even tears:  “I can’t hear you Mother”.  She challenges El’s memories of her as a child with her own less than happy ones. Later on it is the teenager/mother dialogue that we recognise based on the appearance of the daughter and centred around a haircut that shocks El. Fr: “This my  body and I can do what I like…”  In some more adult exchanges mother and daughter look at and talk about Fr’s professional photographs. When they prepare to go out, for a walk discussion then centres around the fact that El does not want to take a walking stick while Fr urges her to. In this complex network accusations and hurtful remarks are also exchanged. Fr: “Say something nice Mother.” El:” Is it difficult to say thank you?”.  Fr: “I do not need you.” Throughout a network of trivial words, more significant words escape and reveal that El did not like Fr’s husband and thought the couple neglected their son, that Fr is considering going to Australia and that El feels very vulnerable at the thought of being left on her own. For good measure, musings about ageing and the traditional mirror scenes also appear.

The two women leave the house for a walk in the frozen and harsh environment. Away from the oppressive presence (in photos) of  the husband,  the two women are somewhat liberated. Fr is advised by her mother to express the anger and pain she feels about the death of her husband. Her emotional outburst, on her own, in this stark environment is extremely affecting. On the other hand El can talk of her fears and need for her daughter: “If I fall you will be there”.   On their way home, the moment where the rapport changes from mother and daughter to  loving adults responsible for each other is concentrated in one scene where Elspeth needs a helping hand to climb up. Here again the visual augments the script. El asks  Fr. not to go to Australia. Fr: “Take my bloody arm, Mother.” El:  “My name is Elspeth.” Fr: ” Take my arm, Elspeth, please.” This moment is dramatically more powerful than any histrionics of the usual family melodrama. The two women walk arm in arm in the village high street and Fr declares that she intends to redecorate her home.

Interviewed by Lyn Gardner in the Guardian, McDonald the playwright and scriptwriter, declares:”There is no reason why the small and domestic shouldn’t be riveting.” Indeed we have in this script the complexity of mother/daughter relationship, its development and changes. It is a shame that too much work needs to be invested to discover the subtleties of this part of the film.   Some reviewers see in this film a theatre production. I think that on the contrary, cinematic devices are used in profusion and are sometimes very effective but sometimes cannot be processed. Emotions are often expressed in images instead of words.  For me, the overuse of editing between the 4 stories inhibits the tracing of the narrative of this mother/daughter relationship and its significance when compared to the classics.  There may be and there are in some edits a meaningful connection between the four stories but they hinder rather than help the appreciation of the two stories I have looked at in detail.

Coming back to Ebert questions: Is the Winter Guest death? Do these couples represent four stages of life? Childhood, courtship, parenthood and old age? A close examination shows that the two stories I have paid attention to are about ageing, death but also support between two women.  This is very graphically showed in images of one woman bodily helping her friend or mother.  The two other stories disrupt this unity.  On the subject of mother/daughter relationship Elspeth/Frances are a real challenge to films like Now Voyager, The Mother, with their deep ageism and melodramatic episodes.  It is shame that it is not perceived as such by the majority of reviewers. 


About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
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